Syfy’s new war-ravaged future Earth series, starring Julie Benz and Grant Bowler, might be a grab bag of pre-existing sci-fi, but it’s still good fun.
Marking a huge collaborative effort between Syfy and the game company Trion Worlds, Defiance debuted tonight with an over-sized pilot episode that adeptly and joyfully set the stage for the series and, hopefully, enticed viewers to check out the Defiance MMO which launched today in conjunction with the show. Not everything about the series is great – the dialogue could use a lot of work, for one – but, admittedly, parts of me are so excited that an ambitious, honest-to-goodness science fiction show is on Syfy, that I found myself just going along for the ride. Even though it’s a ride I’ve taken already with other properties like Babylon 5, Deep Space Nine, Firefly and Star Wars, to name a few.
So there you have it. Derivativeness will be people’s main complaint with this show. But to me – and I know this sounds strange – by being and encompassing just about everything this series is able to find its own voice. Defiance comes with a wonderfully elaborate backstory/history in which Votans (the collective name for seven exiled alien races) arrived at Earth in 2013 looking for a new home. Eventually, fear and tension got the better of everyone involved and there was a giant global war which resulted in big catastrophic terraforming, transforming Earth into a wasteland. There’s more to get into here, but it’s my hope that all of this will eventually be explained on the series and that viewers won’t have to play the game in order to get a fullfilling experience.
Stephanie Leonidas and Grant Bowler and Irisa and Nolan.
The pilot episode deals with Grant Bowler’s ex-solider drifter, Nolan, and his adopted alien daughter Irisa, stopping off at the township-formerly-known-as-St. Louis, Defiance; an isolated Western-style community where humans and Votans live together in semi-harmony. With Nolan and Irisa we get both Han Solo and Mad Max, as both of them take the form of reluctant heroes. But whereas Nolan is a smug wiseass, Irisa is terse and lethal. Giving them that extra, weird father/daughter layer – where he doesn’t know how to be a father nor she a daughter – was an excellent touch and the two of them often clash over their overall (meandering) direction in life.
In Defiance, Nolan quickly finds himself frolicking with whores (in a brothel run by Mia Kershner’s Kenya) and entering himself into an underground alien fight club run by town crook Datak Tarr (Tony Curran). From there, much to the chagrin of Irisa, Nolan places himself in the middle of a family feud between Tarr and Graham Green’s town one-percenter, Rafe McCawley after Rafe assumes that his son was killed by Tarr’s son. Once the truth is uncovered though, a more sinster plot is revealed and by the end, everyone involved takes up arms to defend Defiance from an invasion by the Volge – a deadly automaton race that no one, alien or human, likes.
Providing a taste of the local flavor is Julie Benz, who plays Defiance’s newly appointed Mayor, Amanda Rosewater. This pilot could have just as easily been her story as her first day on the job turns out to be whirlwind of murder, conspiracy and war, but I’m glad it focused more on Nolan and Irisa. As of now, Benz does a great job as a foil for Nolan; eventually warming to him and asking him to remain in town as Defiance’s head lawman. The little twist at the end featuring the former Mayor, Nicky, being a key member of the invasion plot was enticing and enough to make me want to watch next week’s follow up.
Bowler, with Julie Benz as Amanda.
While not as dark and gritty as BSG, Defiance doesn’t necessarily play it safe. There’re still a lot of gaps to be filled in, backstory-wise, but what we’re given on screen is an effective and enjoyable hodge-podge of sci-fi’s past 50 years. It both works as an intergalactic Deadwood and a larger, genocidal war-based series.
Defiance premieres Monday, April 15th at 9/8c on Syfy.
Matt Fowler is a member of the Television Critics Association. Follow him on Twitter at @TheMattFowler